The Hill Interview: Missouri Republican has gavel on his radar

The Hill Interview: Missouri Republican has gavel on his radar
© Greg Nash

The midterm elections are less than a year away, but Rep. Sam GravesSamuel (Sam) Bruce GravesHouse passes bipartisan water infrastructure bill Lawmakers left with more questions than answers on Trump infrastructure plan Five obstacles to Trump's infrastructure ambitions MORE (R-Mo.) has another race on his mind: chairing the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Graves is making an early bid for the coveted gavel, which will be up for grabs in 2019. The nine-term congressman has already been courting Republican Steering Committee members and taking other steps to improve his prospects, such as visiting colleagues in their districts and negotiating key changes to an aviation bill.

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But Graves, an even-keeled general aviation pilot, acknowledged that his effort would be fruitless if Republicans don’t hang on to their majority in the House.

“I don’t want to get the cart ahead of the horse,” Graves said in an interview with The Hill this month. “The first thing we have to do, as Republicans, is keep the majority — that’s item No. 1.”

Graves, a sixth-generation farmer, grew up in Tarkio, Mo., just east of the Missouri River. He obtained a degree in plant physiology from the University of Missouri and farmed after graduation.

But Graves’s frustrations with his state representative in the largely Democratic district led him to run for the Missouri General Assembly, where he ended up serving as both a state representative and a state senator.

When the congressional seat in the 6th District opened up in 2000, Graves jumped at the chance. He was elected to the House with just more than 50 percent of the vote.

“I went into politics, which is kind of weird,” said Graves, who still helps his family farm.

Upon arriving in Congress, Graves immediately started serving on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — a natural fit for the general aviation pilot, who has been flying since he was 16.

Graves lights up when he talks about transportation, whether it’s describing the air show he put together or showing off his binder of vintage railroad passes that his great-grandfather collected. His office walls are lined with pictures and models of trains, planes and automobiles.

Graves, who started the Pilots Caucus and co-chairs the General Aviation Caucus, said he’d be logging 350 flying hours this year.

“I like to say, you build a mile of highway, and you can go a mile,” Graves said. “You build a mile of runway, and you can go anywhere in the world.”

The top Republican slot on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is opening up because Rep. Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterHouse passes bipartisan water infrastructure bill Stakeholder group urges Senate panel to fund Amtrak, Northeast Corridor This week: GOP faces make-or-break moment on immigration MORE (R-Pa.) will be term-limited out of the role next year.

Graves touts his 16 years of experience on the panel, where he has held a subcommittee gavel and has overseen three long-term highway bills, as a reason why he’d be the best candidate for the job.

“It’s not just about time served,” Graves said. “To me, it’s the experience.”

The job could also come with some big challenges.

If President Trump’s infrastructure package doesn’t include a fix for the ailing Highway Trust Fund, which is due to run out of money in 2020, then the next Transportation Committee leader will have to grapple with that issue.

Solving the problem could be a legacy achievement, but will also take a tremendous amount of political capital — and perhaps some political courage as well.

“We are going to have to figure something out,” Graves said. “That’s an important issue facing the Transportation Committee, whether we do a gas tax or change it completely.”

Graves has been making his case for the chairmanship both publicly and behind closed doors. He will be the most senior lawmaker vying for the top spot, thanks to a wave of GOP retirements and other exits on the panel.

His likely only other competition will be Rep. Jeff DenhamJeffrey (Jeff) John DenhamHouse still plans immigration vote next week despite Trump's tweet House GOP discharge petition supporter says he likely won’t sign a second one Election Countdown: Family separation policy may haunt GOP in November | Why Republican candidates are bracing for surprises | House Dems rake in record May haul | 'Dumpster fire' ad goes viral MORE (R-Calif.), who chairs the subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials.

“Sam’s a good friend, and we’re both committed to rebuilding American infrastructure, as are many other members serving on the T&I committee,” Denham said in a statement to The Hill.

Graves has been giving lawmakers a heads-up about his desire to run, seeking out advice from colleagues and meeting with Steering Committee members, who will decide the outcome of the race. Shuster is on the panel and will help determine Graves’s fate.

Graves also has been visiting lawmakers in their districts, including Reps. Rodney DavisRodney Lee DavisSenate GOP wary of new tax cut sequel Ryan to retire as Speaker in January DCCC adds first black candidates to list of top candidates MORE (R-Ill.) and Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversTrump digs in amid uproar on zero tolerance policy House GOP campaign chief calls on admin to stop family separation at border Congress should take a lesson on civility from the Supreme Court MORE (R-Ohio), in order to help them raise their profiles and fundraise. Such moves could further bolster Graves’s case for the gavel.

“I don’t believe in pretending you’re not going to do something,” he said. “If you have any intention of running for something and going after something, then you need to do it.”

Graves has posted strong fundraising numbers, which is another key consideration for the Steering Committee. His campaign and leadership PAC have already raised nearly $600,000 this cycle.

And Graves has contributed more than $44,000 to his colleagues, including some of the most vulnerable House Republicans up for reelection in 2018, such as Reps. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockElection Countdown: Family separation policy may haunt GOP in November | Why Republican candidates are bracing for surprises | House Dems rake in record May haul | 'Dumpster fire' ad goes viral Cook Political Report shifts two House race projections toward Dems RNC mum on whether it will support Trump-backed Corey Stewart MORE (Va.), Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaThe Hill's 12:30 Report On The Money: New York AG sues to dissolve Trump Foundation | Issa tamps down rumors of consumer agency nomination | Bank regulator faces backlash over comments on racism | Cohn contradicts Trump on trade Issa tamps down rumors of consumer bureau nomination MORE (Calif.) and Jason LewisJason Mark LewisTrump mocks 'elites' at campaign rally Rally crowd chants 'CNN sucks' after Trump rips media Will guns be an issue in midterms? You can bet on it in these districts MORE (Minn.).

But Denham’s campaign and leadership PAC have so far outpaced Graves in fundraising, raising a total of $1.7 million and contributing over $100,000 to House Republicans this cycle. However, Denham’s seat could be vulnerable in 2018.

Graves will also need the support of leadership, whom he has generally aligned with. But Graves hasn’t always voted along party lines; he was one of the lone Republicans last year to oppose a proposal to separate air traffic control from the federal government, citing concerns over how it would treat the general aviation community.

But this year, with Trump and House leadership supporting the spinoff plan, Graves wanted to show that he was a team player. So he worked with Shuster to get to yes on the bill, securing key protections for general aviation and working to convince other skeptical Republicans to support the concept.

“I said ‘If I get everything, I’ll be supportive,’ ” Graves said. “And I got everything I wanted, and then some, so I wanted to keep my promise. I’m not the type to move the goal posts.”

But the aviation package has been stalled, and Graves stopped short of saying he would continue the privatization push if he were elected chairman.

“I would venture to say it’s not going to happen if it doesn’t happen [by next year],” he said.

The chairmanship isn’t the only transportation issue on Graves’s mind.

In 2015, he helped coordinate a historic air show to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, which involved World War II aircraft flying over the National Mall. Graves flew a torpedo bomber in the very last “Taps” flight, which assembled in a missing man formation to honor the fallen.

Graves is already planning for round two, which will take place in 2020.

“Just putting that together was incredible. It was an idea that started very small, and grew and grew and grew,” Graves said. “And now, we’re working on the 75th anniversary. And it’s going to be even bigger.”